The Slings and Arrows of Spec Ops: The Line 12

Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line has managed to become something of a critical darling since being released in June, despite rather lacklustre sales. Many reactions to the game have spelt out similar themes: derivative but passable gameplay, linearity masquerading as choice, stock characters and… holy crap, what happened there? Suddenly this paint-by-numbers shooter gets interesting as it begins taking its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous film adaptation Apocalypse Now. Shit, as it were, begins to get real, with descents into madness, player-driven war crimes, American on American warfare, torture, violence, aggression, horror and an uncanny of-this-world-but-out-of-this-world setting. The game’s driving force appears to be the capture and manipulation of expectations, closely followed by the shoving of said expectations where the sun shineth not.

Or, at least, so I’m told. I haven’t played it. I had a pop at the demo when it came out on PSN and was relatively unoffended. I’d read a few bits on the game beforehand and was interested to see what would present itself. I particularly remember a piece by Ben Kuchera on Penny Arcade Review and the big deal made of the sandy surrounds, especially the opportunities for context-specific warfare using the ruinous environment. Ben’s an experienced writer, and when he’s excited about a game, that enthusiasm permeates right through his words and into me. If not exactly excited, I was certainly intrigued. What we got in that demo, Ben and I, was an on-rails helicopter chase scene in which we, of course, manned the minigun. ‘Jesus Christ’, I uttered to myself. I’m not sure what Ben said on his first play. He probably just sighed.

It wasn’t a total let down, you understand. It was just… same old same old. This felt like a game I’d played a thousand times before. Granted, it has some original backdrops, the sand-wrecked Dubai is a gorgeous environment. But here I am zip-lining, cover-shooting, grenade-lobbing my way across it. Regular cannon-fodder enemies mixed in with the odd shotgun-wielding brutes? Check. Sniper sections? Check. Oh look, that gentleman over there has an RPG. I bet if I shoot him at just the right moment he’ll fire at the floor taking down a few of his mates… check. Don’t get me wrong, if this demo had Syphon Filter in the title and had come out 10 years ago, this paragraph would have a whole different outlook. But it didn’t. And so this doesn’t.

Then something happened. Something about the game seemed to have a little more intensity than normal. Not in the gameplay, but in the background chats, in the cutscenes, in the atmosphere. The demo concludes, (as they all do these days) with a trailerish, ‘Here’s what you could get if you buy me!’ montage, but this one actually piqued my curiosity. The game went into my Buy It If There’s Nothing Else Around file. And then in a shop the other day I picked up Uncharted 3 instead.

Is it fair, then, for me to comment further on Spec Ops? I wouldn’t do so about any other game. If I haven’t played something I’ll say so, and then we’d probably abandon that particular discussion and move on to something more mutually enabling. (How’s the weather where you are?) Goodness knows that I wouldn’t usually sit down and write a couple of thousand words for OntGeek on a game I haven’t played! But something else is going on here, something unique.

I‘m not sure Spec Ops: The Line wants to be played.

On the surface, The Line looks like a standard military-themed third person shooter. Underneath, it’s something else entirely. – Daniel Golding

Like the good little aspiring games writer that I am, I spend plenty of my time reading about our mutual interest. I’ve read a lot about Spec Ops: The Line; you may also have done so. For a while there it got a little unavoidable as ‘Spoiler Warning!’-ridden reviews cropped up all over the place, followed by bemused critics and bloggers on their Twitter feeds wondering what the hell just happened to them. I think Brendan Keogh may be writing a thesis on it, for Christ’s sake!  As much as Spec Ops may have passed by the general public’s notice, critics have at the very least been interested. Here, finally, is a game with a message. And the message appears to be: Fuck You.

The Line looks at the player directly and asks the question: “What is wrong with a person for wanting to play a game like me?”Daniel Golding

Spec Ops: The Line is actively involved in turning you against the drive behind games like this… the characters’ uncertainly over what they were doing, their angst, for lack of a better term, was my own. Arthur Gies

I felt troubled as I played. Spec Ops wanted me to feel troubled. That is a mighty strange thing to pay for and to want to keep playing…. One thing’s for sure: I feel sick at the idea of playing another shooter any time soon Alec Meer

Spec Ops’ narrative, in stark contrast to (or perhaps intriguing complicity with) its generic gameplay is built to challenge its players’ comfort. How many times in your gaming life have you shot a man in his face without flinching? Hell, I bet you’ve cheered a good headshot. And here you’ll rain phosphorous down on friendlies, enemies and refugees alike. In Call of Duty you walked into an airport lounge and opened fire into the innocent bodies of bystanders. Ok, maybe you didn’t shoot during No Russian, but you let it happen. Perhaps you popped a little shot at the terrorists your CIA operative was attempting to infiltrate, but it didn’t work, did it. And you let it continue. ‘It was scripted’, you’re saying. ‘I had no choice!’ You left the console on. You let it run. It’s only a game while you’re playing.

‘But what else could I do?’

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler within the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep…

In the extraordinarily famous third soliloquy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark ponders aloud his next move. Shakespeare’s troubled young hero is a man who seems in the midst of some mad nightmare, in which bad consistently turns to worse and worse still. Life, for Hamlet at this point, is a punishment wrought upon him for no good reason, a violent assault of ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. What to do? How to proceed? Action or passivity? Persist or desist? Suffer or take arms?

It’s not an uncommon dilemma. Whether to act or allow things to take their course is a question that faces us all, on various scales, regularly. For Hamlet, the stakes have been driven as high as they get; he is wondering whether to continue living or remove himself to ‘that sleep of death, what dreams may come’.

One of the fascinating features of this passage is the way Shakespeare configures Hamlet’s idea of action and inaction, what exactly it means to be or to not to be. It’s important first to contextualize what we’re reading. While Hamlet is a notoriously difficult play to date in terms of its setting, we do know that Shakespeare was writing for a late 16th-century English audience which highly valued its Christian beliefs, Protestant or Catholic. This is a speech about a man contemplating suicide being made directly to an audience who have been brought up to believe suicide is a sin, an assault on God’s work, and the coward’s way out. But look again at Hamlet’s words:

Whether ‘tis nobler within the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep…

For Hamlet, in total opposition to a view arguably maintained to this very day, continuing to live is the act of passivity. Hamlet recognizes that life is something thrust upon him, and you and I, push as we might, we’ll never shift its path. In his case, of course, this is particularly true- this is a man trapped in his own Tragedy. Shakespeare is his God and, the hallmarks of tragedy being what they are, he is unlikely to be a benevolent Maker. Hamlet’s suicide is framed as the active option because only by performing it could he redirect the narrative of his own life, only then would the ‘Sea of Troubles’ be opposed and ended. Hamlet is being dragged through a torturous narrative against his will and against his better interests.

Sound familiar?

In our lives we are able to affect our future through our actions. This changes when we allow ourselves to be placed into a pre-written narrative. I’ve written before on how videogames involve an inhabitation of the player-character: In playing, we adopt a hybrid identity, and by doing so we expose ourselves to the fatalistic nature of the linearity. For all intents and purposes the developer is God, she makes the road and we must follow it. Spec Ops’ narrative power is derived from the catch-22 into which it places the player through their engagement with the game: we must play to discover the message, but the message denounces the ease with which we commit atrocities in the name of play. This cyclical back-and-forth between playing the game and the game’s meaning closes a trap of responsibility. Even the game’s loading screens are in on it – ‘This is all your fault’, they begin to say towards the end.

Spec Ops therefore questions just what it means for us to choose to engage with it. Our assumption, based on received wisdom, is that the active choice with regards to a game is to play it. Oh sure, I’ve turned away from plenty of games, perhaps it’s not very good or perhaps it isn’t my cup of tea. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood at the right time. But I’m so used to wide scale violence and destruction that it’s never occurred to me to turn off a game because of it, to make it cease. Or perhaps I’m so used to wide scale violence and destruction because it’s never occurred to me to turn it off. Once playing, the default setting for the game is On; to turn it off would be a demonstration of passivity, an insult to the creators’ work. It would be a sin. This correlates with the received wisdom Hamlet challenges by reimagining his suicide as an active response to his burdens. The difference between him and you and I, of course, is that Hamlet’s life is absolutely predetermined. Like us, he might only be able to guess whether he is controlled by fate, but while we can’t answer for sure for ourselves, we know that he is. Because of this, Hamlet’s suicide would more closely resemble switching off a game before you are meant to than ending your own life. Like Hamlet, then, we must question whether the truly active measure is to remove oneself from the whole situation. The answer to, ‘But what else could I do?’ may well be to opt out completely.

So, will I play it? I’m not sure. I think actively choosing to call Spec Ops’s bluff by opting out could be an interesting way to engage with it. But then, the only reason I know that the game carries this meaning is through reading spoilers and critiques. In that way, perhaps I’ve already failed to break out of its catch-22 entrapment by exposing myself to its more provocative and accusatory conceits. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

  • Tom Coberly

    Words like “original” and “intriguing” come to mind, but I think what I really want to say is, “Well done.” This piece could also be read in conjunction with Joel Cuthbertson’s post-Batman-shooting essay.

  • Jim Ralph

    Thank you! I think, having read it within a short while of sitting down to write this, Joel’s essay will certainly have been lurking around my subconscious while this article formulated itself. I’ll have to have another read of his and see how substantial the input was.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • Brendan Keogh

    I think perhaps you (and many, many others) are making the mistake to think that The Line is making a statement when, really, it is asking a question. Don’t think of it as trying to say “This games are bad and you win by not playing this games.” Think of it as asking “Hey, you play these videogames a lot and, let’s face it, you really enjoy doing some messed up stuff. Do you think that’s okay?” And then it pushes you and pushes you to just see how far you can go and still think that what you are doing is okay.

    So, for me, it is not about choosing not to play military shooters generally or Spec Ops in specific, but more about accepting responsibility for the things you do in them when you do choose to play them, perhaps.

    • Richard Pearsey

      This is much closer to it. It is also primarily about trying to create an emotive experience in what is generally an adrenaline soaked genre.

  • Jim Ralph

    Thanks for commenting Brendan. (Incidentally, is it wrong and does it make you uncomfortable if someone shouts ‘Holy shit Brendan Keogh just commented on my article!’ across the room at their girlfriend? If so, that totally didn’t happen).

    I’m not sure, having not played it to any extent, that I’d be in any position to accurately assess any statement Spec Ops might be trying to make. Though you do suggest that the position you attribute to me is one being picked up in much of the other writing on this game, so perhaps that impression has filtered through me from there. I think what I am trying to get at here is how we, as gamers, reply to the questions Spec Ops asks. For you that seems to be to take a more reflective view of your in-game actions. My suggestion, and it is merely a suggestion, is that another appropriate reply might well be to opt out completely. There are others, of course.

    Is a reply necessary, you might be thinking. I think that I think so, if you see what I mean. Perhaps it is the heavily interactive nature of games that makes me feel that way. I also think (hope) that something that comes through in this article is the amount of information we’re subjected to before ever even picking up a game. I’m suggesting that, given what we know is coming, picking up a shooter in the first place is an action for which we need to take responsibility.

    • Brendan Keogh

      Hi Jim,

      You are absolutely right. It’s a really good point that perhaps I didn’t really think about when I wrote my first comment that, yes, there are people voluntarily engaging with this game by not engaging with it or by cutting their engagement with it voluntarily short, and these are things that should totally be written about. It’s a really fascinating kind of paradox, really, where usually you can’t really say anything meaningful about a game without playing it, but Spec Ops has to be one of the few games you can meaningfully NOT play. So kudos on attempting that challenge!

      And sorry if my first comment was really curt. It was pre-coffee and I was probably being too defensive against what you right observe is a more general trend in writing around the game. I think, perhaps, Spec Ops isn’t a meaningful experience for *Everyone* so much as really just for people who really enjoy shooters (like me). People who already despise shooters don’t get anything out of Spec Ops, and I feel these people are writing articles that are kinda missing the point that those that love shooters are getting something serious out of this game. But yes. You weren’t doing that and I totally jumped the gun, so sorry for that!

      Also, this is a REALLY late reply, so sorry for that too.

      (Oh, and it’s strangely flattering that anyone could care about a comment I leave somewhere on the internet :p)

  • Tom Dawson

    Interestingly, where you mention potentially giving up on a game because you dislike the actions your avatar, there was one occasion I’ve actually been moved to do that. However, the situation was completely different to any you’ve described – it was no genocide or torture that moved me to turn off a game, but something that disturbed me far more.

    In L.A. Noire, our protagonist Detective Cole Phelps is presented as a heroic contrast to his fellow cops, who are invariably sleazy and corrupt. He’s a war hero (sorta – the developer’s attempt to humanise the rather robotic Cole by revealing that his war record is not as sterling as first thought), a straight arrow and a family man. And then he cheats on his wife.

    The player has no control over this, happening as it does wholly in cutscene, but it’s a very shocking moment (not least for the reason that the foreshadowed was virtually non-existent). Our “hero cop” is just as bent as those the game has been telling us to look down upon, simply in a different way. This has a much greater effect on me than any of the murder scenes I’d investigated or the armed suspects I’d gunned down, and in fact more than any simulated genocide – whether it be shooting aliens or Russians or Nazis – I’ve participated in over the years, and I wager that if I played Spec Ops: The Line the emotional impact of L.A. Noire would still be greater.

    My theory is that, while the player often does all kinds of heinous activity in an FPS or other violent game, it’s so far removed from our on experience, so firmly in the realm of fiction, that we have trouble considering our actions as “real”. If these things were to happen in reality than sure, they’d be terrible, but (unless you’re a soldier, presumably) that sort of thing is just so alien that the only frame of reference we have is the consequence-free video game version. With Phelps’ douchebaggery and adultery, there is a significantly greater chance that a player can relate, whether as cheater or cheatee; it certainly called up my on memories of being cheated on, and the loathing I felt towards the person who betrayed me was transferred to my avatar. I didn’t want to play as Cole Phelps anymore because he was a scumbag in a fashion I could relate to, a fashion I had experienced the pain of first-hand. Mowing down wave after wave of human beings with a machine gun is much easier to distance the self from emotionally, as such a thing lies entirely outside the realms of my experience and I can easily define it in my brain as pure fiction; smaller, more intensely personal tragedies are harder to disengage from and thus hit harder.

    I can see what Spec Ops is saying, but I don’t think it really works on the level intended. Yes, the player is using their avatar to do horrible, cruel and illegal things but they are all things which – while they clearly exist in the real world – are distant enough from our daily lives that we can dismiss them. It’s hard to force a “My God, what have I done?!” moment from someone who doesn’t understand what they’ve done on any level other than the academic.

  • Richard Pearsey

    Nice piece. I don’t agree, but I enjoyed your line of thought tremendously. The game is intended to subvert/critique the genre not rule it out. We also wanted to inject greater emotion and character development into shooters than have previously been seen. Having said that, I’m a sucker for Shakespeare and loved your application of the soliloquy to our piece.

  • Jim Ralph

    Thanks Richard, that means an awful lot coming straight from the source, as it were. I’m glad you can appreciate the direction of the article without necessarily agreeing. As with anything, I expect there are any number of interpretations of which this is just one. For that matter, what you may have intended for Spec Ops is equally just one possible interpretation, (though with a fairly substantial injection of legitimacy!)

    Thanks again. I’m heartened to see you interacting with responses to Spec Ops.

    • Richard Pearsey

      This kind of thing is fun. And, you are absolutely right – once it’s out there, mine or any of the other devs opinions are just possible interpretations. Heck, not all of us agree about everything. Very pleased to have discovered your blog.

  • Doug S.

    There’s a movie that’s a lot like the game you described. It’s called “Funny Games”, and its reason for existing is to call out the horror movie audience for enjoying the suffering of others. And, as usual, the TV Tropes Wiki has an entry about this kind of thing.

  • Amanda Lange

    Wow, Doug, that’s actually a surprisingly good TV Tropes link (and I generally don’t find it that useful). I immediately thought of “You deadbeat, midnight, freak-geek witted torture-porn gore whores–” and Shadow of the Colossus here, but this seems to be more common in video games than I really thought about. All these games that effectively get angry at you for continuing to play along with them.

    I’m in the same boat with Spec Ops as the article. Got it because of the buzz, haven’t cracked it open just yet. But I know I wanted there to be a subversive critique of shooters out there somewhere.